I happened upon this lovely version of Candide (Voltaire, 1759) at Bookworks, one of my favorite used book haunts in the city, and I couldn’t help but buy it. Who wouldn’t love to have the covers of all of their books adorned with artwork by Chris Ware? The comic on the front is an apt retelling of Candide’s beginning pages which, in short, is that Candide is sheltered from the world by living in a baron’s castle, is tutored by Pangloss who believes everything has a reason and everything that happens is for the best, falls for the baron’s sister Cunégonde, and is subsequently kicked out of the castle.
Hilarity ensues. Candide is nearly executed, Pangloss has syphilis and is later hanged, Cunégonde has been sold to a Jewish merchant (after the castle has been overthrown), and Candide meets an old woman whose butt cheek has been cut off. No, really, that’s what happened to her. Candide is later overjoyed to find Cunégonde’s brother, the baron, again, only to murder him shortly thereafter when he balks at Candide’s notion that he will marry Cunégonde. “I am the mildest man alive, yet I have now killed three men, two of them priests,” Candide laments. Then he and his companion Cacambo kill some apes chasing two naked girls, only to throw the girls into grief because the apes had been their lovers. Yes, that’s what happened.
Candide and Cacambo wander into El Dorado, a utopia that has no need for riches or for finding out what lays beyond their borders. Candide loads up a hundred sheep with the gold and jewels lying about in the streets and heads out to try to find Cunégonde, only to lose all but one sheep to various methods, including being stolen by a pirate because, of course, that would happen. On their way to rescue Cunégonde, they happen upon, who else, but the Baron and Pangloss, their both still being alive baffling Candide. “I had been poorly hanged: no one could have had a worse hanging,” Pangloss says by way of explanation. And yet Pangloss continues to assert that everything is for the best. Having later rescued Cunégonde from enslavement, and even though she has become “very ugly,” Candide renews his promise to marry the Baroness, to which her brother, after having been rescued by Candide from his internment in the galley of a ship replies, “You may kill me all over again, but you will never marry my sister while I am alive.” Basically, everyone is hilariously thick-skulled and nothing that has happened to them makes a difference in their lives. (Not that Candide wants to marry Cunegonde anymore anyway. It’s just that she’s insisting upon it [women!] and he wants to spite her brother. So, good reasons all around.)
I am aware that the story is satire and that, to fully understand it, I could do well to review some 18th century French politics and culture. But, I’m not in college anymore and I’m not going to do that. I will say that the underlying theme that ranks and titles and riches matter little and that in the end, as Candide puts it, “we must cultivate our garden,” is one that remains applicable today. For that I can see why this story persists as a classic. Sometimes it is only through humor that we can make the most profound statements about life and happiness.